Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman team up to re-enact an historical event in South Africa. Eastwood directed and produced Invictus and Morgan Freeman co-produces and stars as Nelson Mandela. Matt Damon is the supporting actor who dons a rugby jersey to play team captain Francois Pienaar. The screenplay is based on the 2008 book by John Carlin, Playing the Enemy.
Invictus is set in 1995 just after Mandela has been elected president of South Africa. It’s a joy to watch Mandela walk into his well-appointed office, but bittersweet because, at this point in time, his personal life is a shambles — Winnie Mandela and the children have left him. He is the president of a yet racist, post-apartheid South Africa. On that score there is little pretense.
Mandela’s life is not the focus of Invictus, but a World Cup game the South African rugby team won in 1995. The championship match and drama play out in the South African stadium where a tough, multi-racial “Black Team” from New Zealand must defend its title against the “Bokke” Springbok team. The colors yellow and green, along with the springbok, have long symbolized an oppressive white minority. Therefore, Mandela must personally pitch his vision to get black South Africans on board to take the world cup. This is the heart of the story– how Mandela, played with grace and dignity by Morgan Freeman, sells his vision of bringing the nation together by uniting them behind a losing team.
The drama is much bigger than Mandela. National unity is at stake. And the audience is reminded how that union and victory over apartheid came to be when Mandela uses the term “comrade” and is called “comrade president” once by a staff member. Press releases confirm the fact that Mandela himself “favored” or “hand-picked” Freeman to portray him. However, this is no biopic, but rather a re-enactment of a particular event. Freeman is convincing as Mandela, albeit a little tall for the role. The real Nelson Mandela does not physically tower over everybody else but that can be overlooked. His moral stature does tower. And running parallel to the president’s life is the life of an unpopular rugby team. Their history is about to intersect in a most unpredictable way.
The choice of Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar makes sense if you want to add some cachet to an otherwise depressing scenario. The skepticism and subtle racism of white South Africans toward a black president and a new South Africa is seen through the interactions and daily life of Francois Pienaar and his family, who employ a black maid. Her humility and dedication to Mandela and the Pienaar family is touching. Eastwood uses common sense and common folks to shed light on Mandela as executive. Will they follow his lead?
What’s admirable about Eastwood, and what I’ve enjoyed about his many well-directed films, is that he is one damn focused director. He does not play around when it comes to putting a film together, whether it's a biopic (which he seems to prefer) or a guts-and-glory film. Invictus’ first 20 minutes or so, unfortunately, seem to come out of the old video cookbook and the chapter on “Talking Heads.” Eastwood crafts the scenes a little too carefully. We get Mandela. He is no stranger to the world. The film does briefly tune into the country’s sights and sounds of shanty towns. It could speak volumes; instead it is muted by the screenplay. In my opinion, black South African music is the most stirring in the world and should have been used more effectively. Eastwood dropped the ball here. Thus, I would not bet on this film garnering any Oscar nods. It will be going up against a solid field of 2009 films and performances. It should do okay at the box office based on the star power behind it.
Finally, Eastwood’s got soul. And this film has a heart. The poem "Invictus", the source of the title for this film, offers cohesion as voice-over narration while the rugby team tours the restored prison cell and grounds that once held Mandela prisoner. The scene pays homage to a transcendent figure. Invictus goes about its storytelling with a little slow-motion action at the matches. I don’t get rugby. But a match between two titans makes money. There are no flashbacks used — just fine acting that moves this 132-minute film to its natural but strong conclusion: the Springbok team (and the nation) brings home a trophy and some measure of racial unity. Mandela vindicated.